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I know, it probably should be “Christmas and me”. Or is it “Christmas and I”?

You decide, as I talk about this unique phenomenon we call “Christmas” as seen through the lens of my heart.

There are questions within the community of sincere believers as to whether this event warrants nearly the focus it gets, especially when compared to the world-changing end result: our Savior’s blood being shed for our cleansing and to make a way for us to be saved, His rising from the dead and opening a door for us to have new life.  The joy that accompanies the recognition of Him pouring out His Spirit upon all flesh is the celebration of the Promise of the Father which was shed forth as prophesied, first in Acts chapter 2, then throughout the time of the Apostles, down through human history, and then in my heart.

It is, I understand, impossible to make a case for the way Christmas is observed being in the Word. But is there a place for it, or could it be seen as serving some purpose?  I know we are not commanded to observe it, nor do I personally find a place where it is clearly forbidden (I know that line of thought opens a whole other set of questions). I realize there are people who feel very strongly about this issue and would be well prepared to enlighten all on the dangers of the celebration as it now stands.  I believe sincerely-held convictions should be kept, and anyone has the right to explain and defend them as they see fit.

It is just not my intention here to enter that debate, and I respectfully ask that it not be carried out in response to this little presentation of my perspective.

Christmas?

It surprises some who are out of the mainstream of Christian thought that there would be any question about whether Christians would celebrate Christmas. Please note, again, that I am not using this platform to offend anyone who has sincere convictions against any aspect of this celebration. I get that there are people who go into debt to impress people who care nothing about them, just because the season “calls” for gifts to be given. I get that people get deeper into their shame and ungodliness because tradition “calls” for a bigger party this time of year. I get that retailers make huge profits off the mania that entices parents to buy the latest and greatest and biggest and best for kids and grand-kids.

I even get that “Christmas” is not in the Bible, as “Easter” is.  There is no recorded instance of its being observed, as the Apostle Paul spoke of traveling to Jerusalem in time for Easter. And I get that the “-mas” part of the word was referring to the Catholic mass, which is far away from my idea of “church”.  At the time it became a celebration, though, “mass” was the only recorded type of service being held, as the officially recognized church body (and the one that created the narrative of history in that time period) was the Roman Catholic church.

When the prophesied Gift was first given, it was, in fact, only recognized by a host of angels in the heavens who chose to reveal it to a few shepherds, and later by wise men from the East who followed a star. So why would someone whose faith draws the lines between herself and the world a lot further back than most people even consider dipping a toe in the pool of Christmas celebrations as they are today?

Why indeed?

Because HE CAME.

The God of Heaven, Who created all things by His Word, chose to robe Himself in flesh and come to the world: the frail, foil-able humans He made, who couldn’t seem to get it right no matter how hard they tried.  That was the moment that all of the world — all of history  — changed.  Forever.

The fact that He chose to keep the advent of His power-robed-in-flesh almost a secret in the beginning makes it all the more powerful. It would be easy here to review so many prophecies that were fulfilled by the way He came: the place, the time, the kings (wise men) coming to the “brightness of His rising”– the magi who followed the star — the wrath of Herod seeking to destroy Him and bereaving Rachel of her children in the process…

The balance of this post could cover those.  As I’m referring to my perspective, let me just say that studying how those things fell perfectly into place, whether or not it was understood that way at the moment by those involved, brings welling-up joy to my spirit.

Listing my favorite scriptures along this line would be a worth-while use of my time and yours. I’ll suffice it, though, with my very favorite, Isaiah 9:6:  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Did you hear that? The Mighty God. The Everlasting Father.

I have elaborated elsewhere on where this scripture fits in our understanding of Who it was that came.

But my goal in the time I have your attention as a reader (if that hasn’t already run out) is to shed light on another aspect: what happens to the world at this time of year.  Yes, I said, the world.

It’s different at Christmas

We have the sense that special things happen this time of year.  To what degree that perspective is influenced by sweet stories thought up by writers like me is difficult to determine> But still, I believe special things do happen around Christmas.  If people are going to think of their families, make an effort to be with them by any means possible, and in some cases reconcile long-held differences, this is more likely to happen during this season.  In all fairness, if families are going to split over whose house the grand-kids go to first, or how much to put on the credit card, this is also more likely to happen.

Still, there is a moment in the year when some stop to think, even on a shallow level, of something, and Someone, they would not otherwise think of. I believe the divide between man and Heaven grows thinner for a few days at this season, and that hearts can be enticed to consider something they otherwise are not wont to think of.  I submit that even the inappropriate addressing of this season by some still serves to point to the fact that it exists, for better or for worse.

I submit that the most amazing thing about Christmas is that it happens, year after year.  Somewhere around Thanksgiving we begin to turn our hearts from the mundane of what our schedule requires to consider a wonder beginning to take place.  In the book that launches the Pevensie children into Narnia — The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — a sad state of affairs where evil’s grip has imposed a cold so pervasive that it is “always winter but never Christmas” begins to subtly change as Aslan, the figure whose presence represents a redeemer, begins to make his influence known in that land.  Ice begins to thaw, snow turns to slush, and soon sunshine, green grass, and flowers appear.  That phenomenon parallels what I begin to feel as the season draws near, and I ponder the wonder of what happened when He came, and what occurs every year at the remembrance of it.

Is this okay?

So what about the weird, wild, or crazy things that people are doing in the name of Christmas? Is that okay? I somewhat believe people keep – or don’t keep – Christmas according to what’s already in their hearts.  Those who have chosen debauchery as a lifestyle, choose that at Christmas-time as well.  Those who are choosing to seek the Holy One the rest of the year are seeking how to honor Him best during this time.  And those who aren’t sure how to please Him, but sincerely want to know, are those who most are needing His touch. I submit that touch is best made transferred through the hands and hearts of those of us who know Him.  Whatever our choices are at this season, let them be made with a love and adoration that is a real and true reflection of the truth of God that will work in any month of the year.

I was blessed to get a degree in psychology and sociology for my undergraduate studies.  That didn’t qualify me to do a whole lot, but to observe how we tend to think and behave, both individually and in groups.  One of the most convincing aspects of there being a reality to Christmas is how we change at this “most wonderful time of the year”. You can’t deny people start to look at things differently; there’s some joy here and there, some kindness, and some caring.  Please know that I’m not such a Pollyanna that I only see the good.  I realize that losses and sadness and loneliness are much more keenly felt as well, but only (I believe) because there is so much joy that surrounds this season until the lack of expected joy seems so cruel to those who don’t have it.

Even efforts to stamp out the phrase “Merry Christmas” from the lips of employees calls attention to the fact that there is a “Christmas” to be celebrated at all.  It really doesn’t matter to me if they say Merry Christmas or “Happy Holidays”, as this most special one falls within a trio that runs from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.  Collectively it’s easier to wish someone joy for all than for each one separately.  Let each person say what fits their conscience.  They’re not going to damage Christmas, in my opinion.

The joy

There is much more that could be said, but it’s Christmas, and we don’t all have our presents wrapped yet.  Just think on this: in the midst of the self-imposed craziness — because we try in good faith to do more than we possibly have time to do — turn your heart upward for a moment, and say, “Thank you, God, that You came. Teach me to joy in your presence and to honor You with my observance of that awesome moment in history.”   I believe the God Who instituted seven separate times of feasting for His chosen people in the Old Testament will not necessarily take offense that we have a celebration over His coming to earth to redeem us from our sins.

I truly wish you and yours a most blessed and joyous holiday season, and especially a glorious remembrance that He came.

 

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“Never stop dating!”

That advice is given to those who want to know how to keep their relationship strong, perhaps from those who have realized just in time that their love had cooled and had to be rekindled.

We often struggle in various types of relationships to hold on to the sweet, close times. Life so strongly comes along and wedges its way between people who were once perfectly attuned to one another. How can we keep this from happening? What can be done?

Never stop dating. 

Be intentional about finding what brings a smile to that person’s face, and go out of your way to make it happen. 

The couple who graciously agreed to let me use this picture from a few years back has certainly been a shining example of this advice. Through cancer, strokes, unspeakable family losses, and health declines that most would find hard to comprehend, the light of love still shines so brightly between them. As this picture captured, they are beautifully intentional in showing their love and fierce devotion for each other. When God referred to the marriage relationship as demonstrating His commitment to us, I’m sure this is what He pictured.

As I was preparing breakfast the other morning, something caught my attention: I recognized a “little thing” as being something my Jesus had provided for me. In that moment I thought about what had happened over the past 30 years. The beginning of this beautiful walk with God was often marked by moments of becoming keenly aware of some small thing, and acknowledging how sweet it was that Jesus noticed that and addressed it; of how touching it was to feel His presence in the otherwise mundane occurrences of life; of how different that awareness and closeness were from what I thought was an equivalent walk with God in my denominational upbringing and the years before the Holy Ghost came.

I was still amazed for years at the depth of His presence I had been allowed to know, when in the past, I had only read about and imagined such a true closeness. I knew this change had come because of the Gospel of the Apostles (Acts 2:38) which I was allowed to see as being still  relevant today, and which would bring this power when literally obeyed. I knew that my doing so, by His grace and mercy, had brought all the difference.

When one person in a relationship who reaches out for a close, even intimate, moment is rebuffed or ignored, they often withdraw and become unreachable to the other party. We are formed in the image of God — not only our physical being, but our emotional make-up as well. God penned, through the hand of Solomon, the story of the maiden’s Beloved knocking at her door at a time she found it inconvenient to answer. By the time she decided to arise and open the door, her Beloved had withdrawn himself and gone. 

I remember wet tears rolling down my face once to read that story, and to understand the implications for the treasured walk with God I had been given: if the Spirit of God moved on me for prayer, for closeness, and my heart was “busy” and uninterested at the time, He could very easily move away and be unavailable when I found a “convenient season”. (Felix, who trembled at the preaching of Paul in Acts 24, and chose not to yield to what God was doing until a “convenient season”, never was recorded to have had God deal with him again.)

When God described, through the prophet Amos, Israel’s disdain for the feasts and solemn days He had commanded them to observe — times He had ordained for them to draw closer to Him — He said in that context that he would send a famine unto them, not for meat and drink, but for the hearing of the Word of the Lord. Please know that we don’t come to God when we decide to: we come when He draws us (John 6:44), or not at all.

Over time what changed for me was the recognizing what sweet things were being done, and the remembering that it hadn’t always been that way in my life. Taking the ones we love for granted is something we struggle with in every type relationship. We can even begin to believe we are the reason for our own success in situations where we would look pretty silly propped up by ourselves to make our own way in the world.

Remember. Recognize. Acknowledge. Look for God’s hand in the little things, and take time to thank Him. Talk sweet praises and loving phrases to the God who came to make everything new, and who walks in things both good and bad — for you. If you’ve never seen the truth of Acts 2:38 as it applies to your life, then seek to know God that way — don’t shy away because it represents something different than what you have known. For me, that seeking represented the beginning of something more beautiful than even I could have pictured at the start.

“Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, for thou has left thy first love.” (Rev. 2:4) 

It need not be that way: Start dating again. . . 

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“It may actually get into our house this time.”

Our house”  is a place I have visited since childhood,  home of a beloved cousin just far enough ahead in age to marry while I was a young girl, and to have never failed to provide adventures when we’ve gotten together.

Memories flowed in, from the small shed she and her husband lived in on the land they’d saved up to buy while they worked along on their house. I spent a week with them in what seems like about a 6′ X 8′ space in my mind, just as happy as could be. I could almost trace every inch of the original floor plan in the 1800 square foot cozy home. Over the years it seemed nearly every time we’d visit something had been added or updated or developed a little further.  Not sure how many square feet it had come to. They didn’t brag, and I didn’t ask. Every change had a plan, a reason to be included: a space for family get-together’s, plenty of room for the grandchildren,  little touches that together created an atmosphere many family members grew to consider a second home, even those of us several hours away. There are roots that have gone down there over the years.

Multitudes of memories. . .

“Well, keep me posted.”

I hadn’t even called about flooding. I had no idea any was expected. I was calling to let her know results on my daughter’s medical test. She was concerned about that. I was calling to see if she and her husband wanted to drive two hours to celebrate her aunt’s (my mother’s) 80th birthday over lunch the next weekend.  They’d do that sort of thing in a heartbeat. Drive a couple of hours to meet us. Eat, visit, and then drive back home.  Have done it for years, pretty much spoiling all of us with how easy they make sacrificing for their extended family to appear.

Our conversation was interrupted by a somewhat frantic call from their daughter whose home is next to theirs. She was there alone as they returned to Denham Springs from New Orleans.

Roads and streets leading their home had been abruptly closed. I heard snippets of the conversation taking place on her husband’s cellphone. She said someone was at their window — as they sat stuck in traffic — telling them the interstate ahead of them was having some routes diverted.  This was Friday morning.

When we resumed talking, it was with her assurances they’d get to their daughter if they had to get a boat to do it, and that it would all be OK.  After all, “God’s got this,” she confidently affirmed.

She rehearsed their plans for moving business-related equipment to her brother-in-law’s house on higher ground so they’d be in position to respond to the needs of their gas customers once the water receded.  They would be fine to stay in their homes: she and her husband in the second story they’d added a few years back; their daughter in her house built four feet off the ground.  These are people who — if anyone does — know how to prepare for just about anything, neither foolish nor over-confident.

After we hung up I began, as I often do when unusual weather’s pending, to scan my app for updates in that area. I came across this:

Flood forecast screenshot

That upgrade from “minor to record severity” alarmed me a bit, but they are people who’ve handled almost everything already in their life-times, and I had no doubt they’d know how to stay safe in this.  Still, I was praying and checking, following their updates on Facebook.

The mood was what I would describe in our area — over two hours up from the Gulf Coast — when there’s a hurricane approaching: check the supply of candles, get some bottled water, buy some Spam if you really must, but otherwise, it’ll be OK when the wind stops blowing.  That had worked well for us most of the time. But then there was Katrina.

When I went to bed that night I was confident they’d be able to recover quickly from whatever damage might be done with the water they were told to expect.

I woke the next morning to this picture from their daughter’s front door — the one four feet off the ground:

Front door view of flood.jpg

I sent a text to her mom. They had indeed slept upstairs just to be on the safe side, but awakened to find the refrigerator floating in the kitchen, water pouring in at the doors, and wooden floors buckling.

“The doors won’t open. I’m about to wade to a window and try to get out.”

No more illusions about this being just another water event common in south Louisiana. No more hopes for a few inches of water that would be a pain to clean up.

Clearly it was time for them to go, in my view. But I knew it was not what they’d do. I knew one more boat would be hitting the water in a few minutes, and somebody else was about to be pulled to safety.

I tried to be patient, watching Facebook, knowing there was little time to chat.  When I could stand it no longer, I checked back with their daughter.

“Are ya’ll OK?”

“I’m turning in circles in my living room.  Dad told me I need to get out, but I can’t even think what on earth I should try to take.”

Decisions she’d never conceived of having to make now had to be reached in a few minutes’ time.

“What about my great aunt’s chairs she left me? The little special things? Do I take clothes? I absolutely have no idea! This is just crazy!:

I tried to be consoling, but acknowledged I couldn’t imagine what she was going through.

“A dog just jumped out of his owner’s boat in front of my house and there was no way he could go back for him with the current. He’s just out there barking and pitiful but I can’t get to him. I can’t do anything! So, no, we are NOT OK!”

When all I could think to say began to sound hollow in my own ears,  I was about to let her get back to her crisis, when it occurred to me there was one more thing I could offer.

“Let’s take a minute to pray before we go.”

As we prayed over the phone Heaven’s touch came down and I felt some peace at least come into my heart, and believed some dawned in hers as well.

I won’t post the image of her mom wading through water to her armpits to get back into a boat (she’d gotten out to rescue a cat) leaving the only home her children had known growing up, the refuge for any who needed a place to stay, the recovery site for multiple extended family members who’d suffered horrific accidents or life-altering illnesses over the years (because they have always been willing to stretch themselves for those they loved and opening their home was only natural). In short, she was leaving the central hub of our family’s memories, and a haven we knew would be there for us, too, if we needed it.

I didn’t breathe any easier until 1:00 p.m. when the text came that they’d been picked up by the brother-in-law whose house was safely above the flood, the one where the equipment had been moved. At least they could pass the night comfortably before seeing what had become of their homes.

“I’ve got a little baby in here: please just take my wife and kids.”

Only one of the stories they related when we talked later that afternoon as shocked residents of their neighborhood had called out for rescue by their boat and many others. The sharp “No!” in reply had not been understood to mean that the father wouldn’t be left behind. He only heard a refusal to help, and immediately cried, “At least take the baby!” The National Guard had them safely out a few minutes later.

I tried to picture the sheer force of the raging water as she talked of muscles she’d pulled getting through it, and no way to imagine less hearty people managing to do so.

There was only a hint of concern in that conversation mid-afternoon that the water was continuing to behave unexpectedly and a suspicion evolving that it could potentially continue to rise.

“Do you have a boat where you’re staying big enough to hold all six of you if it does?”

“No, there’s only a small boat here.”

Still mostly confident they were safe, I did begin to pray harder that all would go well.

By 7:30 that evening they were trying to find a way out. Facebook began to light up with questions about what roads were open near them, and comments exploded with family and friends in the area who were still unaffected trying to find a route for them to drive out.

There was none.

Was there someone who could reach them by boat? These folks had rescued others all day.  Couldn’t someone help them?

I remained confident that would happen shortly.  These people are survivors.  They have a strong network of family and friends: people who would scale tall buildings or swim deep oceans if  necessary to help them. Rescue teams like the one they had been a part of earlier, locals with boats and big hearts, had been out all day plucking people from danger.

Someone would be helping them soon.

Only they couldn’t.  Night was falling.  A terrible time for water and uncertainty to be rising.  Those Good Samaritans’ boats weren’t equipped with the kind of lighting to navigate waters that rendered streets all but invisible in the daylight, held multiple barely-submerged hazards, and raged with a current almost impossible to fight.

Post after post, share after share, desperate comment after desperate comment from friends and family near and far pleaded on their behalf. It felt absolutely incredible to embrace the idea that these people who’d give their lives for any of the people out there weren’t going to be pulled from this danger.

Officials had to order those who would love to help out of the water til daylight.

When the only remaining option was to access the emergency management system, the next Facebook  post was

“911 busy.”

Livingston Parish Emergency Operations Center had been relocated when their offices flooded, but numbers were circulating to directly request rescue by the National Guard, Sheriff’s Office, and Homeland Security, along with the private individuals operating when they could.  Over 15 numbers were on the list.

8:10 “I have no idea what to do.  No one is answering the phone.” Could a network that large be getting overwhelmed?

8:19 “I finally got in touch with the Sheriff’s office.  They put us on a list to rescue. They said there are hundreds ahead of us.”

Posts of friends and family on dry ground, near and far, intensified trying to find a way themselves, and tagging other individuals to try and help. It still seemed that one of those options must be the one that would save the day. But lead after lead turned into dead ends. Fear began to knot up in my stomach.

Thus began a night none of us will forget.  Family who would have given a kidney for them had to just wait and watch the posts about the water rising:

“Sitting on the kitchen table with feet in the chairs,  water now two inches over the chairs.”

“Still waiting. Water waist-deep and continuing to rise.”

“Power’s out. You wouldn’t believe the spiders, roaches and other bugs, frogs, and snakes in this water.” Still, there was that sense of humor:

“…At least we are all OK and making some really funny memories.”

But these were people who weren’t spring chickens for the most part, several of them in their sixties, a couple with heart conditions, one with asthma and a history of pneumonia, all having exhausted themselves during the previous day. The fatigue and pain were real enemies. How long could they stand this?

It was easy to feel frustration that nothing was being done.  Come daylight, we’d learn how many thousands of rescues took place that night.  It’s hard for that to even sink in. Tens of thousands of lives were being saved by local authorities, National Guard, and Coast Guard personnel.

It was a waiting list one couldn’t track, as the water continued to rise.

I lay there (in my warm, dry bed) praying.  Again. And again. And again.  Nothing changed. In the wee morning hours my prayer became “God, You could fix this.”

I’ve been blessed by some amazing answers over the years.  I began to feel the line had gone dead.

“A couple of us have gotten into the little boat.  When you think it can’t get any worse, it can.”  It had started to rain again.

The tone of posts from family members too far away to do any good became desperate.

“Someone please help them! They don’t deserve this!” Of course no one deserved it, but that was a testament to the utter incredulity of family having to simply hold our hands and wait.

The conviction grew that we truly stood to lose them while we watched from our perches in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, as helpless as anyone could be.

The families of thirteen people, as of this posting, did experience that ultimate tragedy.  My heart goes out to them.   I can only imagine their vigil of hoping to receive better news than what eventually, tragically came.  I learned this weekend that one was an elderly lady next door to where my family passed the night who, once she made it to safety, lay down on a couch to go to sleep, but never woke up. We continue to pray for all affected.

I expected a number astronomically higher than what it has been.  (But for the nature of the people in the area, their sense of connection to each other before this began, the abundant waterways that had many owning boats they were more than happy to put into service, the nation would be reeling at the death toll.) I struggled to not picture  my loved ones among that number.

Day broke.  The flotilla of locals returned to the water.  By 8:00 a.m., that phase of the weekend that changed so much forever was over.

They’ve been back to survey the damage.

The place I’ve known as a peaceful refuge since childhood, that had seen water to the steps during the last record flood but not a drop inside in the 45 years they’d been there, received a full eight feet of water.

It will very possibly have to come down. The weight of the upper floor may be buckling the compromised lower walls.  Even if that doesn’t happen, the memories of early morning quiet times in the little breakfast nook, or of the quiet strolls through a spacious garden built up over the years for themselves and their guests to enjoy, the couch where we sat to have the last heart-to-heart will have to suffice. There are specific memories for virtually every room, that are now themselves only a memories. We were going there for Thanksgiving again this year.

We never could have imagined our next trip would be to join the help quickly pouring in that is, just as quickly, being swallowed up in a sea of need. People who would gladly help anyone are struggling to find someone who can spare a few hours to give them assistance, as family after family after family salvages what they can and tries to prevent deeper damage from mold setting in.

It’s funny how the outsides of homes so often look the same.  You know which have been flooded only by the piles of treasures mingled with torn-out Sheetrock, insulation, and flooring by the road. I learned today there are some simply living in the mud, sleeping on wet mattresses, as the mold grows. Elderly and single mom have few options.

We spent a day and a half building onto our loved ones’ pile, and shaking our heads, and adding sweaty hugs to whatever words of consolation we could find.

They’re deciding what to do.  When all is wiped away, recreating just what had been — at this point in life — isn’t the most practical scenario.  There will be plenty of time for talking about what we’ve learned from this, or why we feel it could have happened, or what God is doing in it. If there’s an immediate takeaway, it would be to live every moment with those you love as though it is not only your last one with them, but your last one with the life you have known with them.  And trust God with them, when you see Him moving as you’d like to, and when you don’t see.

 

 

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Photo courtesy of Lynn Kelly Author via WANA Commons

The first week of our sixth year with Alpha Omega Christian Academy has just about come and gone. It’s been a full one, with numerous challenges and rewards, but as a day or two off before the next week draws near, it seems like a good time to revisit this post from July 3, 2012.

Let’s have another look, shall we?

JUST DON’T PLAN ON DOING ANYTHING TOMORROW

With tomorrow being a national holiday, that surely sounds tempting: just a day to do whatever comes to mind, or nothing in particular.  I feel having a day with a plan like that once in a while is beneficial.

There’s another way of looking at whether or not we’re planning on doing anything tomorrow:  it’s the “I’m going to get to that…Tomorrow!” list. At this point in my life, I’ve seen several things die of old age on my “Tomorrow!”  list.  But a few crumbling remnants did make it over to “Oh, why not go ahead and try?”, and those that did made lasting impressions.

Like the time I decided for real that credit cards were crazy, and that I was about to be.  Mind you, that was no heroic thing.  It came after I totaled my less-than-one-year-old car, and began to look at my budget, spending plan, frantically scrawled figures, to see what I could afford.  Answer:  “NOTHING”.  Very disappointing.  A single mom, I’d been digging a hole deeper and deeper in credit card debt, thinking I’d get straight “Tomorrow!” I really couldn’t afford much of anything with real money.

I was directed toward the solid financial teaching/debt-lambasting of Dave Ramsey, who had gone bankrupt before learning financial principles.  Of all the good programs on getting out of debt, his communicated to desperate, debt-strapped people (already feeling like idiots), “You’re no dumber than I was, just don’t stay that way!”  The courage to try was imparted. So, with much prayer, and a plan for trimming a few non-essentials from our new budget, the cards were cut up, and I humbly went shopping for something closer to my reality-range. The progress hasn’t been perfect, but having greater balance has been golden. As long as that decision to stop and turn around was on the “Tomorrow!” list, though, I got no benefit from it — only mounting anxiety.

Another thing off the “Tomorrow!” list, is what I’m doing now:  Writing.  In my social work career, the opportunities to compose and collaborate on documents seemed among the most rewarding tasks I had. I grew to see it as more than an interesting sideline and more of a worthy pursuit.  How did I discover that?  By starting.

So you may be processing that last idea: “You found out by starting, and you started by finding out?  Huh?”  Let me explain.  I read someone’s blog I wanted to comment on, and to do so, had to sign up for the blog-hosting site (wordpress.com). When I did, I realized that writing a blog was in my power to do (and was free). That was exciting — and scary.  But the overriding sense was that I felt I had something to say.

The chance to read others’ blogs through Word Press showed me there were writers out there actually encouraging the writing of people they’d never met.  Who knew? Kristen Lamb‘s blog was of this sort, and by looking at the blogs of others who’d commented on her posts, I found several more with solid advice, and the ability to help growing writers learn.  They actually seemed to care whether I wrote that book that’s been on my “Tomorrow!” list so long.

So, my point? One of my favorite sayings is: “It’s easier to guide a vehicle in motion.” Duh, of course it is.  Yet how often have we looked at things we’ve dreamed of and thought, “I just don’t know if I could.  Maybe I’ll look into it…Tomorrow!” The way to know if it’s time to begin is: to begin — just take steps.  Baby steps are great.  With so much of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips (through internet on computer and smartphones, or even your good old neighborhood library), you have the ability to learn about your interest freely. Just begin to inquire: try, and see what can happen.

One more story.  When I retired a year ago, after 27 years as a social worker, I had some misgivings of “What next?”. I prayerfully asked that, and by the time retirement was official, I was deeply immersed in opening our church’s Christian School — our pastor’s vision, but an area I’d felt a connection to many years before.  Learning as we went, all involved were all amazed at the resources and support we found.

Looking back on this first year reminds me of this phrase from God’s word: “…the Lord working with them…” (Mark 16:20). It describes men who didn’t sit back and wonder if they should start, but began, and knew they weren’t working alone. The Lord worked with these apostles who were following his command to preach the gospel (detailed in the book of Acts), and he confirmed their word “with signs following”.

Obviously there are seasons for things in our lives, but when there’s a tug to pursue a passion, even if your ability seems fragile, the doing something — moving it from the “Tomorrow!” list — is the only way to know what can happen. So, just don’t plan on doing anything “Tomorrow!”  See what you can start “Today!”

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File Aug 03, 6 45 21 PM

For me it marks the end of an era.  The passing didn’t make the news, but it certainly affected me.

You see, my earlier single years were impacted by a touch much gentler, more personable, and certainly more genteel than my own. That touch was embodied in three special ladies — two sisters and their first cousin. They and their families took me in, in a manner of speaking, and quietly changed me. While time and circumstances were to push us all in different directions eventually, there was a few years’ interlude that marked my life to this day.

I had never been a “girlie girl”. Just wasn’t. I remember thinking from a young age about what I would “be”, and I hate to say it, but I don’t recall the vision of becoming a wife and mommy competing well with “scientist” or later “psychologist” or the one that eventually  stuck, “social worker”. I went straight from high school to senior college to graduate school to a career, and though I dated some along the way, I wasn’t particularly in a hurry to “find someone”.

Not long after moving back to Mississippi from my year-long attempt to follow my dreams in North Carolina, I had begun to seek God more seriously than ever before, and had been filled with the Holy Ghost at age 26, which began another phase of life, serving the Lord with all my heart. When a few years later I moved to a community nearer my church, I was brought into contact with this group of ladies from an older time. Their desire to exercise biblical hospitality simply bowled me over. It was Sister Grace, Sister Hosey, and Sister Montgomery. (They weren’t nuns, we just use the term “Sister” as one of endearment and respect within our Pentecostal church family.) I’m not sure why two of the ladies were addressed by their last names and the other by her first, except that “Sister Turnbough” might have been a mouthful — few were even sure how to spell it — but most of all, “Grace” just seemed to describe her best.

The events that would draw this reclusive young woman into a family I didn’t know began not long after I moved into the tiny rental house. A knock on my door one Saturday morning brought me face to face with one of the ministers of our church. He had just come from Sister Grace’s house, almost directly across the road from mine. He had prayed for her, he said, but was concerned that she was in pretty bad shape and needed someone with her. My immediate thought (not at all seeking to be the hero in this story) was, “Doesn’t she have family around here? Why me? Besides, it sounds like she needs an ambulance more than companionship.” But, having been “raised”, spiritually speaking, to be in obedience to the ministry, I just said I would go, and went on over. That morning literally changed my life.

The fact is, the woman did need an ambulance, and anyone else probably would have already called for one long before. But Sister Grace truly had the faith of a child, and it had already brought (and would continue to bring) great miracles in her life. She was probably having a stroke. Her face was so distorted it was grotesque to look at, and whatever was happening had affected all her limbs. Seeing the look on my face, she assured me she’d been prayed for and knew God was going to work. The ambulance idea seemed a little difficult to bring up just then, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pray with her just a bit. Perhaps I could explain my delay to her family.  After a few minutes of prayer, she announced, “Susan, I believe He’s touched my feet! I feel it! Let’s praise Him for touching my feet!” Through my anxiety about possibly letting this woman die on my watch, I began to join her in praising God for touching her feet. In my way of describing it, the Holy Ghost fell in that living room! In a moment’s time, we were worshiping and praising God like it was a high church service. As we praised Him, she announced, “He’s touched my legs! Let’s praise Him for touching my legs!” and here we went again. This continued and progressed until I saw her face go back to normal, and she was as whole as anyone who’d never been affected by anything unusual. I was not only greatly strengthened in my own faith, but my spirit was melded together with the spirit of this woman in a way that nothing else could have done. It would sustain me in years to come, and in ways I could not have imagined at the time. She would later skip down the hall of a hospital as doctors whispered behind her about tumors that had been on her liver on previous MRI’s, but not on the ones they’d repeatedly run that day.

Sister Grace was a package deal. Her own sister was a couple of states away, so her cousins who lived nearby had to fill in the gap, and Sister Hosey and Sister Montgomery, the two with whom she most closely shared her faith, were the dearest it seemed. They all three lived on land their grandfather had owned, as I recall, and had a quite a history in common growing up. They’d just about fall out with each other at times, but at the core, they’d have done or given anything for each other.

In those days, people “set” with each other. I know, that’s not the right word to use (and I still have trouble remembering where to use “sit” and “set” in writing), but the terminology was, “Come and set with me sometime.” These three ladies, and others in their family, would take turns visiting in each others’ homes, just to talk and enjoy one another’s company. We do that on Facebook and other social media now. What would happen if any of us  knocked on the door of a friend and said, “I just came by to set awhile”?

I began to find myself drawn into the “setting”, and over the years some of my rough edges were knocked off. Not gossip sessions, the predominant topic of conversation was the goodness of the Lord and encouragement from His Word. For readers who haven’t known me for a long time, this was major. Being shy and retiring is a rather substantial trait in my birth family of Thigpen’s. (Perhaps that’s why our family reunion has continued for 83 years: our fore-bearers knew they had to create an annual exception just to stay in touch with their kin.)

There were some interesting moments, many of which went against the grain of my plain ways and preferences. Conversations like these. . .

“I want to come see your ‘tiques sometime…” Sister Montgomery was a confirmed ‘tique (antique) collector, as were the others, and going “tiqueing” with her girls or sisters was a highlight. My quick response was, “Sister, you’re welcome to come walk all through my house, and if you see a ‘tique there, you let me know.” It had never crossed my mind that I should consider collecting anything old. To this day, though, if I see an interesting piece of glassware or pottery, it immediately gets turned over to look for a date or an imprint of any kind to show its value and age. And, yes, she’d find a few if she could come today. I even have one or two that Sister Hosey’s delicate hands were able to glue back together after my clumsiness damaged them, as though nothing had ever happened to them.

“One day you’ll have a little girl with long dark hair. And you’ll go shopping together…” If there was one thing Sister Montgomery liked more than ‘tiquing, it was out-and-out shopping. The only thing I was less likely to do than collecting antiques was shopping for enjoyment. Going to a store was a necessity in my book: what you did when you needed a specific item, and you should surely get it over with as quickly as possible. The thought of going to a mall made me wince. It was absolutely not something you did when you wanted to kill a few hours, and certainly not with a child in tow. My daughter is now twenty years old (with long dark hair), and somehow over these years she has shown me that shopping — with someone you love — can bring a great deal of enjoyment. In fact, earlier this week, I shopped til she dropped.

Sometimes, there were gentle rebukes. . .

We were all to prepare food for our church’s anniversary service. This was a big deal. Ministers from everywhere would be there to celebrate with our church and pastor, and the meal we provided afterwards was always something to behold. I was assigned a dish completely foreign to my culinary talents at the time: punch-bowl cake. Mercifully, Sister Montgomery offered for me to join her and her daughters for a group cooking effort in her kitchen, and she walked me through every phase of the dish. One of the layers of cake and pudding and strawberries and whipped cream wasn’t being applied into the punch bowl to her satisfaction, and I had to be directed on how to get it just right. “When I make something for the church,” she admonished, “I want it to taste as good as it can taste, and to look as good as it can look.” To this day, when I’m arranging my brownies on the nicest platter I can find (sorry, but the punch-bowl cake thing just didn’t stick) I remember that my true assignment is to make sure they taste as good as they can taste, and look as good as they can look. I’m trying, Sister.

Beyond the things that had to be done to tune up my gnarly person, there were other moments that made a serious impression on me, just by watching:

The peculiar way Sister Montgomery’s face and voice changed when holding or talking to, or even speaking about, little babies and children — pure delight, devotion, and focus on that little one, as if the greatest gift God ever gave humanity had been placed within her grasp. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone so devoted. The particular way of burping my own baby when she came along was taught by her as well: “stirring” as she called it, worked a whole lot better than the traditional up-on-the-shoulder-back-pat technique. “You have to stir babies,” she’d told me, which was demonstrated as placing the baby upright on your lap, with a hand on the chest and a hand on the back, then ever-so-gently easing her around in a circular motion from the waist. Worked every time, as I recall.

There came a time when Sister Montgomery said she felt we should begin to have some home prayer meetings. I was all for taking more time to pray together. We started meeting every afternoon, with Sister Hosey, and Sister Grace, and several daughters, granddaughters, and others — up to eight or so ladies. I can honestly say that some of the most powerful prayer meetings I ever experienced were there front of that chair where I knelt in Sister Montgomery’s living room. After a few months, though, a day came that would change her life forever. Her beloved husband, Buster, became very ill and was soon diagnosed with cancer. Though the prayer meetings were somewhat disrupted as she focused her sole attention on caring for him, she recognized God’s preparation: “How could I ever have faced this if we hadn’t already been praying beforehand?” Her faith never wavered, even though there came a day she had to let him go. One night as she prayed alone by his sleeping form in a hospital room, a vision of the Lord Himself appeared at the foot of the bed, assuring her of His love and care during that time. It affected all of us, and strengthened her greatly.

Time and readers’ attention spans would fail for me to tell of the warmth added to my life by accounts of how the family came to God one at a time: first Sister Hosey’s daughter, Kathy, who prayed for the rest of the family until God had His way in many of their lives; Sister Hosey and her son, Jackie; Sister Hosey’s and Sister Montgomery’s mother; another son, Kenny; Sister Montgomery’s daughters, Betsy and Janie, followed by Sister Montgomery and her husband; and eventually Sister Grace (hopefully they’ll forgive me if I recorded that out-of-order or left out someone).

They loved to talk about the goodness of the Lord, and when they got the chance in person or on the telephone, that is what they’d do, for as long as both parties could spare to do it. Years ago, Sister Montgomery and I literally talked all night long about Scripture and God’s goodness, and things we’d seen Him do in our lives and the lives of others. I remember the precious craft items Sister Hosey would make by hand, bringing them to sell to raise money for the church.  I felt a bit condemned that I wasn’t more “crafty”. I treasure memories of Sister Montgomery quoting their mother during church testimony services.  Sister Dykes, who I was not privileged to meet, was well advanced in years when she received the Holy Ghost, but fully understood the essence of living a godly life: “Ninety-nine and a half percent won’t do,” she’d said. “It’s got to be all the way in living for God.”

I vividly recall images of shelling peas as a community, an event the three would gather for as faithfully as prayer meeting. It took lots of hands to get those peas shelled right away, most important because “vegetables start to lose their natural sugar the minute they’re picked, and you have to put them up as quickly as possible”, Sister Montgomery had explained.  It was intended to let me know that I wasn’t just being included; my fingers were sorely needed (pun intended).  I hear the echos of her young grandsons as they strolled through her kitchen: “Fix us something we can drag through some syrup”, they said, which she immediately knew meant sausage was to be fried up, and she gladly complied.

We began to lose them a ways back: seven years ago, Sister Hosey slipped away on Easter Sunday, precious and faithful to the end, though cancer had brought her many, many miserable days. Three years ago, Granny Grace, confined to a nursing home for years due to major health issues, prayed her way on over to the other side. Just last week Sister Montgomery left on a Sunday night to join them for an eternal visit in the presence of the One they most adored. To me, it represented the closing of a chapter I’d never even expected to have written in my life, but am so much richer because of.

It really does make going to see them a more precious thought than ever.

 

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This isn’t a post about being without earthly possessions, though it wouldn’t be a bad thing to call attention to — there are certainly people in that situation.

Instead it’s a reference to a message Bro. Aaron Dutton preached recently, and its after-affects in my heart. I’ll try not to ruin the message for any who might have the chance to hear him preach it elsewhere, but its effect was profound.

Jacob, the son of Isaac and father of the twelve sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel, had spent many years in the certainty that the coat he had been given one terrible day was evidence that he would never see his beloved son Joseph alive again. Joseph was Jacob’s obvious favorite, the first son of the wife he most loved, and the jealous older brothers had chosen to finally remedy themselves of this thorn in their sides by selling him to a band of traders — making him a slave — when Joseph had been sent by Jacob to see how they were doing with the sheep they were tending. For a cover once they’d done the deed, Joseph’s beautiful coat, the very symbol of his father’s favor, was dipped in animal blood and taken home for whatever conclusions his father would draw from seeing it. The evidence was strong enough to convince the heartbroken jury of one that it was over. Joseph was never coming back.

We spend a lot of time sure of some “never’s” in our lives, as well.
But there would come a day when Jacob was told that the “dead” son was in fact very much alive and was sending for Jacob to come to where he was. He looked up and saw the evidence with his own eyes: a stream of wagons Joseph had sent for him, loaded with provisions for the journey to Egypt, where Joseph was now second ruler over all the kingdom, with enough corn for their starving family to survive the rest of the famine.

O, joyous day when that “evidence” he’d clung to in sorrow was proven to have been a lie! He would never have to wonder again, never have to listen to the false testimony of that coat again! His eyes had seen the proof.

There have been times in a period of prolonged difficulty that I’ve felt joy, I’ve seen my faith rise, and known God was telling me that He would in fact have His way in the end of my difficult situation. He would answer. He would work. I’ve even seen times where there were results, breakthroughs, that seemed as though the end of the long dark period was at hand. But I’ve seen things appear to slip through my fingers, again. A new layer at times added to complicate the situation.

And when I looked down, it appeared what I had left … was still that coat.

You see, the only thing Jacob had for years and years was the coat. Joseph was out there somewhere. But Jacob had no idea; he only had Joseph’s bloody coat. What could Jacob have done? We only read about his decision to grieve until he died, refusing all comfort. The sons who had so cleverly ridded themselves of a troublesome brother had also lost their father in the process. He was never the same again, and they were no more in his favor than when Joseph was among them.

Great loss, and great trouble, can bring great burdens. Jacob had those things to deal with. But would he have had a choice in his response? Consider the situation that came upon Job. Could Job have also said, “I will go to my grave grieving for my sons and daughters?” Of course he could have, and all the world would have said that was appropriate. But we are forever inspired by Job’s responses: “The LORD giveth, and the LORD taketh away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

I know that I serve the God who made Heaven and Earth, who robed Himself in flesh so that He could come and shed His own blood for my sinful soul, the God who found a way to reach fallen man, and fill us with His Spirit, and walk with us daily, to shed His love abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. Is anything too hard for God?

Does it matter if I’m looking at the wagons or the coat today? Can I be like the widow before the unjust judge who just kept showing up at the place where her help was coming from? Can I be like the Syrophonecian woman who turned the refusal of Jesus to heal her daughter into her miracle, by simply saying “Yes, Lord…”, and that hour received what she was so desperate to have?

I know that my Redeemer liveth. If things are to be fixed, they will be fixed by His power, His hand, His Spirit, His Word, and in His way and His time. His question was, “When the Son of Man cometh, will He find faith in the the Earth?”

From Jacob’s story, I can conclude that when all I have is a coat, I can know that my God is still working on my behalf. I don’t know when the wagons are going to come. But I believe there’re dust and rattling wheels in the distance. As Job also said, “Though He slay me, I will trust in Him.” God loves me, and He will not fail, and I can choose to worship and praise Him when I cannot see. The coat does not have to steal my joy.

There may be more days with no good news, days that continue to come for weeks or months or even years after the message we’ve heard preached that inspired us to high hopes.

Yes, there will be days when all we have in our hands is a coat. How do we walk through those days? As though in our hearts, we can see the wagons that are on the way.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

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You’re strong, successful in your sphere of influence, important to people close to you — perhaps even to some you’ll never meet in person.  That didn’t happen by accident.

To accomplish what you have, you’ve chosen carefully the paths you’ve taken, rejecting what wasn’t compatible.  To maintain what you’ve achieved, you’ve guarded your perimeter:  you’ve set and kept boundaries, the realm of safety that only admits the influences you choose.  You continue to protect yourself and those closest to you — the ones you’re responsible for.

But I submit to you that there’s a flaw in your plan, a weak place in the field of well-thought protections with which you’ve surrounded your family, business, and career.  You may somehow realize that is the case, or you may be oblivious to the fact that anything is wrong.

Nature has a parallel

Removing brush that was previously cut but left in place at the edge of my yard a few days ago, I found most of the bushes light from drying and easy to handle. When one branch unexpectedly tugged back as I tried to pull it out of the surrounding growth, I looked more closely to determine why. My examination showed an attachment that had formed to the bush well before it had been cut. Something the size of a few strands of human hair had wrapped slowly and quietly around that branch while it was in the process of growing to its present size.  A thorny vine, which eventually made my handling of the brush a bit more uncomfortable, had proceeded to make itself at home in an otherwise healthy, strong plant.

I thought how quickly, subtly, and painlessly the direction we have chosen can be affected by something we hardly notice until its effects have forever changed the outcome of our plans, goals, and dreams.

The danger of safety

The great story of Samson (the closest thing I find in the Bible to our modern concept of a super-hero), is that of a man whose incredible strength came from his separation to God. Before Samson was even conceived, an angel of the Lord had directed his parents in how to raise him as dedicated to the service of the Lord – what to do, and what not to do.

Samson was not, in himself, a strong man, but the Spirit of the Lord came upon him when it was needful to do so, and by that strength, he took out thousands of enemy warriors in a day, single-handed, with the jawbone of a donkey for a weapon. He once pulled up entire set of city gates and carried them on his shoulders, and he continued to outsmart his enemies, while taunting them with his strength.

But over time, Samson took for granted this power (there is no recorded time when he prayed, built an altar, or worshiped God as his forefathers had done).  A woman he loved, Delilah, was approached by the enemies Samson was to deliver his people from, and offered wealth to sell him out. There is no record that she even argued with the people who asked her to betray him.  The woman he loved repeatedly prevailed on Samson to tell her the source of his strength, and though each time he offered her only some ruse in reply, she immediately acted on whatever he had said would work to quell his power, even inviting the enemy to apprehend him once she rendered him powerless.

Somehow, in the midst of this obvious effort to do him in, Samson managed to hold tight to his sense of security, and as Delilah pressed him over and over with her “if you really loved me, you’d…” ploys, he finally broke and “told her all his heart”.  He gave away the secret of the one thing that God had given him as the source of his strength, knowing it was something that she could easily take away from him.

Did he remember that everything he’d told her so far, she had tried? What did he do after disclosing to her the real truth of how to disable him?  Run?  That would have been a sensible plan, but no, he didn’t.  Did he at least ask her to promise not to use the information against him?  No record of that.  What did he do?  He put his head in her lap and went to sleep.  In the place where he was in the most grave danger he’d ever faced, he behaved as one who felt perfectly safe.  If you’re not familiar with how the story turns out, I encourage you  to read it for yourself, (Judges 13-16), but suffice it to say that, after that night, he was never able to feel safe again.

The chink in your armor?

Your flaw may very well be simply feeling you are safe in your own strength and ability.  You’ve done all you can to help your family be financially stable, functional in society, and happy with one another.  Those things are all good. Who gets the credit?

The Apostle Paul, one of the greatest figures in history, leader of the early church, and author of  at least half of the New Testament, summed up his abilities this way: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing…” (Romans 7:18).  Was that some notable false humility from a super-spiritual leader? If you read the context of that chapter, he acknowledged the struggles (really failing to get it right sometimes) that he faced with doing the right thing, then asked, “Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”  He answered his own question with, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Paul couldn’t do it, but he knew who could.

In the “Never let ’em see you sweat!” society in which we live, confessing that we are not the ones to bring and to hold our own personal world together seems like the weakness that would get one eaten alive.  But that is just what we must do to have real security: trust in the one who made us, and who came to live among us and to redeem us.

Hey, last week even the government recognized that it isn’t totally in control of things that matter, as evidenced by NASA’s advice  to Congress on the best course of action, should a large asteroid be found hurtling toward Earth: “Pray”!

Calling out to the One who alone can add the extra layer of security we could never attain, is the only true way to have security. Jesus is the only one who is powerful enough to safely hold you and your personal world. He’s also the one who holds all the world (and that includes all the asteroids) in his hand.

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